Today, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announces the resolution of two religious discrimination complaints ensuring clergy access to patients for religious purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic, one involving MedStar’s Southern Maryland Hospital Center (MSMHC) that is part of the MedStar Health System, and the second one involving Mary Washington Healthcare (MWHC) in Virginia.
In the first matter, in July 2020, OCR’s Conscience and Religious Freedom Division (CRFD) received a complaint from a mother alleging that after giving birth alone at MSMHC, she was separated from her newborn child because she had tested positive for COVID-19 upon admission to the hospital. Shaken by the involuntary separation, the Complainant requested that a Catholic priest be allowed to visit her newborn son to baptize him, but according to her complaint, the hospital denied her request due to a visitor exclusion policy adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Acting in partnership with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), OCR provided technical assistance to MSMHC and MedStar Health System based on CMS guidance – PDF explaining adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy in hospital visitations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MedStar Health System updated its visitation policy for all ten hospitals under its purview, including MSMHC, so that patients in COVID-19 positive units or sections, as well as non-COVID units, will be able to freely exercise their religion by receiving religious services from the religious leaders of their choice at any reasonable time, as long as the visit does not disrupt care.
Visiting clergy must follow hospital safety policies, including screening for COVID-19 infection, must follow proper infection prevention practices (such as hand washing/sanitizing, and physical distancing), and must wear a face mask.
In the second matter, in August 2020, the Diocese of Arlington filed a complaint with CRFD alleging that MWHC would not permit a priest to provide the Catholic religious sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to a COVID-positive patient who was in an end-of-life situation and whose family requested that the priest visit the patient to provide those religious sacraments.
After learning of the complaint filed with OCR and in light of the urgency of the patient’s situation, MWHC allowed the priest access to the patient to provide the sacraments.
Shortly after, the family of a surgery patient in MWHC’s intensive care unit (ICU) also asked for a priest to visit to provide the religious sacraments. Although the patient was neither COVID-positive nor suspected of being COVID-positive, MWHC would not allow the priest to visit. MWHC had designated the entire ICU as a COVID unit, and as such, MWHC restricted visitors from entering, except in end-of-life situations. Although the patient had just undergone a serious procedure, MWHC had not determined the patient to be in an end-of-life situation and, thus, would not allow the patient access to clergy. The Diocese of Arlington again filed a complaint with OCR so that the ICU patient could receive religious support.
OCR also provided technical assistance to MWHC based on the CMS Guidance.
In consultation with MWHC’s infection control specialists, OCR reached a resolution with the parties that balances patient needs for compassionate spiritual support and the hospital’s practical need to protect staff, patients, and visitors from infection.
Under the new policy, patients in COVID units will have access to clergy in compassionate care situations, including end-of-life situations. MWHC will allow visits by clergy in COVID units, provided that the clergy member first completes scheduled infection control training offered by MWHC, the clergy member uses fit-tested PPE provided by MWHC, and the clergy member signs an acknowledgment of the risks associated with visiting a COVID patient.
In extraordinary circumstances where one or more of the above steps are not practicable, such as urgent end-of-life situations, clergy will be allowed to see a patient but must self-quarantine for 14 days after the visit.
The updated visitation policy states that patients in non-COVID units may exercise their religion by receiving clergy visitation at any reasonable time, as long as those services can be provided without disruption to care.
Both Medstar Health System and MWHC updated their visitation policies to ensure that persons with disabilities could receive in-person assistance from designated support persons (DSPs) without undue hindrance. OCR enforces Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded programs. This follows OCR’s recent resolution with the State of Connecticut after the state issued an executive order regarding non-visitation policies to ensure that people with disabilities are not denied reasonable access to needed support persons.
Roger Severino, Director of OCR said, “We applaud the MedStar Health System and Mary Washington Hospital Center for ensuring that all of their patients can now receive religious support when they need it most.” Severino concluded, “Compassionate care requires treating the body without sacrificing the soul, and these resolutions show how hospitals can do that safely even during a pandemic.”
To see MedStar Health System’s updated policies, please visit https://www.medstarhealth.org/mhs/about-medstar/covid-19-info/visitor-policies-and-guidance-during-covid-19/ .
To see Mary Washington Healthcare’s updated policies, please visit: https://www.marywashingtonhealthcare.com/COVID-19/Visitation-During-COVID-19.aspx .
For more information about how OCR is protecting civil rights during COVID-19, please visit https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-providers/civil-rights-covid19/index.html.
For more information related to HIPAA and COVID-19, please visit: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/hipaa-covid19/index.html.
To learn more about non-discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age, and disability; conscience and religious freedom; and health information privacy laws, and to file a complaint with OCR, please visit www.hhs.gov/ocr.